The Challenge of Sci-Fi
By Frederick Luis Aldama
My brain’s been working in overdrive and overtime. I’ve been thinking damn hard about the future—about how we might think and feel in the future as much as look in size and shape, about how our everyday life might be organized: from grocery shopping to driving to schooling to fucking.
It’s damn hard to imagine anything but an extrapolation of our barbaric present. And I’m not the only one.
I’ve always loved my sci-fi. As a kid I satisfied this craving with comics like Fantastic Four, Buck Rogers, and flicks like Star Wars. As a Latinx tween, then teen, my library card was stamped regularly with check-outs of Jules Verne, Frank Herbert, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Edwin Abbott, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson. As a young adult, I discovered Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and the sci-fi comic book storyworlds of Los Bros Hernandez. More than weighty tomes of Shakespeare, this was my curriculum. This formed the education of my imagination.
Sci-fi continues to be a big part of my life. I’m eager to Fandango tickets for the latest Stars Wars installment. And, no matter how Rotten-Tomatometer review might be, I’ll still shell out to see even those panned by the pundits. During prime-time hours I’ve often sat in the cinema alone with my popcorn watching flicks like Babylon AD, Last Airbender, Battlefield Earth, and The Fifth Wave. I know, I’m a glutton for punishment.
These days I also spend my time working on its creation. With my Chilean co-conspirators, Rodrigo and Fernando of Mapache Studios (they also worked with me on my Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands), I’m writing the graphic fiction, 2041. As I write this, I’m fleshing out a 19-year-old Latinx character who wakes within a dream to her brain disconnected from limbs. She’s floating in a wispy pink, oily blue fluid that’s been unplugged from her avatar body moving in the real world. I’m fleshing out an emotional system that we at once recognize and that’s different. Different because she has been grown in a socioeconomic system that radically departs from today’s capitalist barbarism.
This is way harder than imagined. Most of contemporary sci-fi is simply a distillation and recreation of today’s worst and worsening forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression that look more and more like depictions of Middle Ages social stratification and power structure, with extravagant but monotonously foreseeable war machines. What is Star Wars but a high-tech (light sabers for swords, say) palimpsest laid over a feudalist order—medieval or Frontier expansionism (we’re first introduced to Solo as gunslinger in Tatooine’s saloon, “Chalmun’s Cantina”). With fantasy, we often find the same, just not cloaked in tech. Game of Thrones is a case in point. Theorist Frederic Jameson talks about this as the failure of our imagination; our incapacity to imagine the future as anything but an extrapolation of the most barbaric forms of capitalism and as evidence of systemic, cultural ideological closure.
I still have a good time with my Star Wars. But I know there can be more—and there has been. Stanslaw Lem used his imagination (his counterfactual capacity, to use a fancier term) to create a new and quite innovative ontology: Solaris as a sentient planet with a recognizable yet radically different affect system to ours. In Flatland, Edwin Abbott reached out of familial comfort zones in his creating of a planet made up of interacting line segments and polygons.
Before I continue, let me expand a little on the mental operation known as counterfactual thinking. It plays a central role in our theoretical and practical everyday life. We exercise this when we think: What if I get very sick and can’t go to my exam tomorrow? What if I wait and take the next bus? What if I get mugged and paycheck was stolen the day I get into an accident and have to pay a hospital bill because I’m uninsured? What if I had been able to study both English and Spanish as a child instead of just one language? What if the cause of certain morbidity and mortality was due to invisible biological agents? What if, as Einstein thought, travel in time is related to light and space? What if all things are connected by a force called gravity or gravitation?
The answers to all these counterfactual questions give one everyday planning, thoughts about opportunities in life and roads taken or not taken, speculations about personal (national, biological) origins and possible consequences thereof, the development of a field of science (biology and the origin of life, physics and the possibility and conditions for time travel), plus the basic mental operation and essential script conductive to all literary fiction, and to all forms of technology and art.
We use our counterfactual capacity when we turn to the past and the present to hypothesize a tomorrow. We use this capacity to imagine how we might act, think, feel in ways today that can transform our world tomorrow. Authors have done this. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did it to imagine a world free of war and exploitation with Herland. There are many other instances of authors looking to past and present to create what has been called utopian fiction.
Our ancient and proximate past has been replete with monumental shifts in socioeconomic structures, demography, and in the kinds of minds that correspond to these big leaps: from the Neolithic to the middle ages to our increased urbanization in modernity and today. Indeed, it is this past that continually has me asking while writing 2041: what kinds of minds would make up either a similar or completely different planetary socioeconomic system?
In science, in art, in technology, in all everyday life we must plan things, we must organize our activities, schedule them, think about how they belong to the now while seeing how they belong to the future. We have to foresee our current day and determine how what we decide for today will have (or might have) consequences for tomorrow. We must do this for everything, including for our leisure activities, since we are also Homo ludens and we must also plan for our future play.
This raises the question: Do I use my counterfactual capacity to create a storyworld built directly out of what I see happening today? Or, do I try to imagine something completely different: not a pie-in-the-sky utopia, but something actually possible in terms of a new socioeconomic order that allows for all on the planet to realize their full capacities of perception, thinking, feeling, and creation in new ways.
I fear for my science fiction. The gravitational pull to today as my compass for the future is strong. I learned recently of the town, Tancítaro, in cartel-controlled territory of Michoacán, Mexico, where local agricultural industries have bankrolled the arming of citizen-turned-militias to protect its people and the avocado fields. Rather than functioning as worker’s councils where the people, the workers, and even peasants vote and elect at all moment revocable representatives to the local council, it’s those with the guns and those with money who control who is in and who is out in what has become a deeply corrupt town administration. More generally, with the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere going on forever, with war becoming the new normal, it seems likely that the permanent state of war led and propelled by the US (together with Trump’s threats of a hand on the big red button), chances are that my generation might see the obliteration of today’s planetary civilization if not of human life altogether.
As I mentioned, I know that sci-fi can do better. I know that it can untether itself from the indexical of today’s barbarism. But I still love my sci-fi—and especially these days when I can do more than spot a Latinx making a cameo, as when in Rogue One Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa makes a few-second appearance. Like many in our community, I smiled from ear to ear when Diego Luna played the smart, fierce Cassian Andor with his Mexican Spanish accent, and when Guatemalan Latinx actor Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron wasn’t prematurely killed off, as happens so often with Latinx silver-screen characters.
I’m still working on my fiction entitled 2041. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to use my counterfactual capacity to bring something new into the world that will allow readers to see and experience a proximate future where human and planetary organic life forms interrelate and create in stunning and remarkable new ways a future we all want. I’m hopeful.